Abstract: No Good Reason for the Government to Interfere: Business, the State and Railway Employee Safety in Britain, c.1900-1939

Mike Esbester


I examine the business-state relationship in occupational safety on Britain's railways between approximately 1900 and 1939. Before 1914, I argue, occupational safety attracted significant state interest. Railway companies neutralized threatened government "interference" by constructing clearly defined roles for each party. Companies did not simply oppose state action, but used a combination of stalling, apparent cooperation, and a subtle discrediting of state "knowledge" to minimize the impact of state intervention upon managerial autonomy. The 1913 "Safety First" campaign was a pre-emptory response to threatened legislation and a clear instance of the influence of the regulatory environment over the decision-making process within enterprise. I explain the lack of government intervention in safety issues after 1914 in terms of wider political and economic developments in the British railway industry. Continuities across the period, and the companies' and the state's shared similar understandings of safety, predisposed the state acceptance of companies' claims that they could regulate employee safety without state involvement. I demonstrate the importance of state-business interaction in responses to dangerous work environments.

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